So shall we continue? Last column, I revisited Walker Percy’s 1983 classic “Lost in the Cosmos,” or the “Strange Case of the Self,” as he puts it. Percy purports to tell us “How you can survive in a universe about which you know more and more, while knowing less and less about yourself, this despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians.”
I promised an answer to the dilemma of self-consciousness, asking, “Is there a cure?” The need for which I addressed by focusing on our two cats, who are in seventh heaven precisely because they are unencumbered with self-awareness. Maddie the Mooch is blissfully blithe about opening the kitchen cabinet where the treats are stored. Moral dilemma? Wrongdoing? Nah, that’s where the food is!
Am I making overmuch of this? Perhaps, but then I’m afflicted with the disease of philosophy, with its attendant issues of hyperexamination and endless reflection, both of self and what I only presume are other selves. I’ve certainly known people who appear to be almost completely non-self-aware, happily living the unexamined life.
In one notable case, I met a woman who talked constantly, the words flowing in a gushing stream of consciousness straight from brain to mouth, unmitigated by the least reflection, consideration or – apparently – thought. It was amazing to listen to her, as she never ever shut up, a ceaseless surge of mundanity. You might recall that I once went 10 days, during a meditation retreat, without uttering a word. So the idea of never shutting up sort of repels me.
But back to the cure. Why, again, do we need one? Percy uses several thought experiments involving aliens to illustrate our dilemma. And he thinks that much of the speculation regarding possible encounters with extra-terrestrial intelligences, e.g., level of technology, friendly or not, etc., is misplaced. For him, the fundamental question is this: “Did it also happen to you? Do you have a self? If so, how do you handle it? Did you suffer a catastrophe?”
Just think of the sheer variety of selves humans can assume. Percy offers a fine array, the names of which are also, for the most part, self-explanatory: “the cosmological self; the Brahmin-Buddhist self; the Christian self (and, to a degree, the Judaic and Islamic self); the role-taking self; the standard American-Jeffersonian high-school-commencement Republican-and-Democratic- platform self; the diverted self; the lost self; the scientific and artistic self; the illusory self; the autonomous self; and the totalitarian self.”
But this is only the beginning. The bulk of the book is comprised of Percy’s 20-question self-help quiz, which examines some of the symptoms of self-hood with their particular afflictions: the amnesic self; the self as nought; the nowhere self; the fearful self; and many others.
My favorite? The bored self. Percy’s description is delightful: “Why is it no other species but man (sic) gets bored? Under the circumstances in which a man gets bored, a dog goes to sleep.”
I’ve suffered from many of these selves, most notably what Percy calls “The Orbiting Self,” described as “Reentry Problems of the Transcending Self, or Why it is that Artists and Writers, Some Technologists, and indeed Most People have so much Trouble Living in the Ordinary World.”
Transcendence is, by its nature, fleeting. What goes up must come down. No matter how you achieve orbit – and how much you want to stay there – fatigue and/or the annoying intrusion of the “real world” necessitates re-entry. Which, frankly, I hate. Which is also why I can offer no cure for having a self. Curse? Gift? Both?
To be continued.